The first military operation in the Battle for the Land of Israel was an unmitigated disaster. Moshe chooses twelve men to reconnoitre the land in preparation for an offensive against the local Canaanites. The spies return with an intelligence report concluding that any attempt to fight the Canaanites would be a suicide mission. The Jewish People are disconsolate. They look to replace Moshe with a leader who will return them to safety in Egypt. G-d punishes the Jewish People by forcing them to wander the desert for forty years.
Scripture summarizes very clearly why the mission ended in failure. The spies tell the nation that while the Land of Israel was all that G-d had promised and more, they would be unable to defeat the Canaanites [Bemidbar 13:31]: “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we (mi’menu).” Rashi, the most renowned of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, notes that the word “mi’menu” can mean both “we” and “He”. What the spies were really saying, explains Rashi, is that the Canaanites were too strong even for G-d. Nevertheless, the response of the Jewish People to the spy’s report is bizarre. Yes, the Canaanites would be a formidable foe. The spies had brought back reports of “sons of giants”. But these people had just seen G-d split the sea, extract drinking water from a rock and defeat the Amalekites merely by having Moshe raise his hands skywards. Why should the Canaanites be too much Him?
When I was in sixth grade, my science teacher accused me of ”not being able to see the forest because of the trees”. I suggest that not only did the Jewish People suffer from the same syndrome, but that Moshe was aware of this and he attempted to pre-empt it. This is evident in the first instruction that he gives the spies [Bemidbar 13:18]: “See what kind of country it is”. Nearly every commentator I have seen understands this imperative as a preface to the questions that follow [Bemidbar 13:18-20]: “Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?” This is the direction that Rashi takes. In his explanation to the words “what kind of country it is”, Rashi writes, “There are countries that rear strong people and there are countries that rear weak people; there are such as produce a large population and there are such as produce a small population”. Moshe was tasking the spies to acquire the intelligence data required to prepare for combat: locations of population centres, sources of water, and local topographical data. Indeed, Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac Bekhor Shor, who lived in France a century after Rashi, explains the term “what kind of country it is” with the words “as will immediately be explained”.
Remarkably, none of the commentators that I have seen have anything to say about the first word in Moshe’s instructions: “See” – “Ur’item”. Moshe should have begun his instructions with the words “What kind country is it?” without using the preface “See”. What is Moshe adding to the brew? To answer this question, we must look at the end of the portion, in which the same “see” – “ur’item” – appears. The topic at hand is the commandment of tzitzit – fringes on the corners of a four-cornered article of clothing. The Torah commands colouring the fringes using tekhelet, a sky-blue dye made from the secretion of the Murex Trunculus mollusc. What is the purpose of this blue dye? The Torah answers [Bemidbar 15:39] “See it and recall all the commandments of G-d and observe them”. Merely by looking at tekhelet, a person is reminded to keep G-d’s commandments.
The Talmud in Tractate Menachot [43b] explains how this works: “Tekhelet is similar in its colour to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Throne of Glory [which the scripture states is sapphire blue]”. When one sees a tekhelet coloured fringe, an associative progression leads him down a path that eventually leads to G-dliness. Why is this associative progression necessary? If tekhelet is blue and G-d’s Throne is blue, why are any intermediate steps necessary? Why doesn’t the Talmud simply state “Tekhelet is similar in its colour to the Throne of Glory”? Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, known as the Maharsha, who lived in Poland and the Ukraine at the turn of the seventeenth century, explains that the jump from our corporeal world to the Divine cannot be taken in one step. The path must be traversed slowly and carefully and it requires intense analysis and introspection. At each and every step one must pause to reflect.
Let us fold this understanding of the word “see” back into the Moshe’s instructions to the spies. When he tells them to “See what kind of country it is”, he is telling them to progress slowly, to look beyond what meets the eye. Yet they do the exact opposite. Rabbi Yaakov Freeman, who lived in Germany at the turn of the twentieth century, notes in “Ruach Yaakov” that the spies required only forty days to reconnoitre the land. While Rashi – noting that the Jewish People were punished by one year of wandering for each day the spies spent in Israel – asserts that this was miraculous, Rabbi Freeman sees the brevity of their trip in a much more insidious light, and for a good reason. The Israel National Trail (INT) – Shevil Eretz Yisrael – is a hiking path that traverses Israel from the Golan Heights in the north to Eilat in the south. The INT criss-crosses the country, such that while Israel is only about 470 kilometres in length, the INT is about 1000 kilometres long.
A seasoned hiker can complete the trail in about forty-five days if he walks at a good clip and replenishes his supplies at night. The spies started and concluded their mission at the southern end of the Land of Israel, meaning that their journey was about the equivalent of hiking the INT twice. What should have taken them ninety days only required forty. The spies did not pause to reflect – they sprinted through the land. Rabbi Freeman calls them “hasty and irresponsible, in a rush to arrive at a foregone conclusion”. By failing to perform their mission according to Moshe’s explicit instructions, the spies missed critical intelligence. The Land of Israel does not easily give up her secrets. There is always far more than meets the eye. The spies saw deserts when they should have seen drip irrigation turning those deserts green. They saw undrinkable sea-water when they should have seen desalination plants. They saw no visible sources of energy when they should have seen offshore platforms extracting natural gas from deep under the Mediterranean Sea. To paraphrase Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, “They saw but they did not observe”.
Once we understand how the spies failed in their mission, we can begin to understand why they failed. My wife, Tova, offers a striking explanation: Israelis spent the summer of 2006 embroiled in the second Lebanon War in which 4200 rockets were fired at our country. The northern third of the country – where we live – was essentially shut down and the residents were locked in bomb shelters. But instead of looking at the war as an isolated incident and sinking into depression like many others, Tova found that by looking at the war in the context of the previous summer, in which Israel “disengaged” from Gaza, uprooting hundreds of Israeli families from their homes, it took on a different light in which she found new meaning and even hope.
Tova suggests that the spies should have seen the desolation and the ferocity of the Land of Israel in their context. G-d had just redeemed the Jewish People from Egypt and given them the Torah. They were going to Israel because G-d wanted them to go there. Their every move was part of something that was much greater than their individual selves. Everything the spies experienced while in Israel should have been interpreted in this context. But sadly, the spies were not looking for a forest – they were looking for trees. And they found exactly what they were looking for.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Iris bat Chana.
 For those of you looking for a “different” explanation of the weekly portion, I highly recommend the Bekhor Shor. His explanations are always interesting. He nearly always attempts to give rational explanations to miraculous phenomena.
 Another path, taken by the Rashbam and the Ralbag, suggests that “what kind of country it is” is referring to the topography: Is the land flat or mountainous? Is it forested or bare?
 It has been suggested that the spies completed their mission so quickly because they split up. I find this explanation untenable for the following reason: During the course of their journey, The spies discover a cluster of grapes that [Bemidbar 13:23] “had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them”.